Written by The Weekend Vote
Published: December 26, 2014 at 9:02 PM [UTC]
Our recent article about the Handel and Haydn Society make me think more deeply about gut strings. In that article, Baroque violinist Aisslinn Nosky spoke at length about the allure of the gut-string sound and also about the staggering inconvenience of playing on them! Basically, they break so often and lose pitch so easily, that one needs to become a "virtuoso tuner" to play with them effectively.
There are a number of kinds of gut strings: pure gut and wound gut, which is wound with aluminum or silver.
As for pure gut, they are generally made from sheep intestines. "There are some excellent makers in North America," Aisslinn said. She named two American makers, Damian Dlugolecki and Dan Larson's Gamut Strings. "A lot of craftsmanship goes into it, and it takes a lot of time to make them, and their prices fluctuate a little bit depending on how expensive their material is," she said.. "There are a lot of makers in Europe, too, and some people order them from Europe. It's like a hobby, this world of strings."
When it comes to wound gut, those are a bit easier to find (and contend with). Pirastro sells a number of varieties: Eudoxa, Chorda, Gold Label, Oliv and Passione. Eudoxa strings, for example, have a sheep gut core but are wound with either aluminum or silver.
Have you ever tried gut strings? Do you use them on a regular basis? Do you use gut for all strings, or just one? Please tell us your experiences, and also your recommendations (especially if you have kinds that are not listed here.)
I am not a purist, I do not insist that it is inappropriate to play Baroque era music on modern instruments and strings. Many can only afford one instrument or choose to spend all of their savings on one instrument. I say explore everything that interests you with enthusiasm and curiosity.
It is not possible for us to know what performances of that era sounded like with certainty. We can make assumptions and we can research diligently but in the end, there was probably as much variation in technique and style then as there is now, perhaps even more.
My thought on the subject is to consider Shakespeare. No one expects King Lear to be done in modern English or in modern costumes. No one is offended that it is usually performed in period costumes and in a form of English we rarely hear. It is part of the charm and of the experience. It is exalted and admired for what it was and is. However, Shakespeare has been done in a modern context. That works too if you have an open mind about it.
Time is the final arbiter.
I suppose it is hard to relearn after playing modern violin for all of my musical life but I believe it has been very beneficial to play the historical accurate instruments at this point!
I do not agree with those who say gut doesn't last long (although true for the E), for my experience is that they last for well over a year without fraying - and that is on 8-10 hours of orchestral playing/week, plus practice hours. Unlike synthetics with their complex multilayers, the simplicity of plain gut structure ensures that they retain their playing quality without deterioration for a very long time.
Fingernails short, a fairly low action, don't hammer fingers down on the strings, and apply sweet almond oil regularly - all help string longevity.
I find projection is as good as anything I've had from synthetics, and the tonal quality is of course unequaled by other strings. It is the gold standard that the synthetics are trying to emulate. The violin of course was designed for use with gut, and metal wasn't considered until the very end of the 19th century.
My preference is for strings by Savarez.
I also have a "Baroque Style" violin that I play as often as I can without straying to far from my normal violin and fiddle practice.
My BS-violin (Baroque Style) has a shorter bass bar. The neck looks baroque but the angle and configuration are modern, thus "baroque style" not a "baroque violin".
The BS-violin came with steel strings and a not too proper baroque bridge. I put Gamut strings on it and had Sandro Cocco fix the bridge and do a proper setup, except the neck.
Having difficulty getting comfortable with my fiddle after playing the BS-violin led me to quit using a shoulder rest on my good violin and fiddle also. Though I still use chin rest on my non BS-violins.
The wound-gut types I've most recently used are Gold Label, Eudoxa, and Oliv. With Eudoxa and Oliv, I won't use the regular D-G. The tone breaks or crushes too easily. I use the stiff Oliv D and the stiff Eudoxa G. Pirastro recommends the stiff versions for modern players; they withstand intense bow pressure much better, and I notice better pitch stability, too. Still, even the stiff Eudoxa D sounds a bit pale on the instruments I've tried it on; but the stiff Oliv D brings these instruments to life and really makes the instruments ring, so I use it instead.
I won't use the Oliv A -- I've read too many unhappy stories here on v.com about its sub-par pitch stability.
My 1921 fiddle comes to life with a Tomastik combo that I really like: A - Vision Solo; D - Peter Infeld Aluminum; G - Infeld Red. The 1869 violin delivers a better sound, to my judgment, with Infeld Red A-D-G than it did with Eudoxa or Oliv. FWIW, I use steel E's on all my instruments, usually Goldbrokat medium or Westminster. With steel E's, I get more sheen in the high notes than I do with a wound E, and I get stronger sympathetic vibrations on A-D-G.
Haven't yet tried pure gut.
The problem, of course, is stability. My fairly recent experience has been using Passione strings on two different violins for two years each. During summer with the house humidity stable and set to 50%, and the violins remaining inside, little adjustment was needed but usually a little tweaking had to occur on one or more strings to begin with but this then remained reasonably constant through an hour or so of playing. In winter with the house humidity reduced to 30% to avoid inside ice buildup from condensation on windows in a northern climate, perhaps tuning might have been needed a bit more often. I've always felt the violin sounds best outside in warmer months compared with the desiccated sound indoors at lower humidity during winter.
I found Passione playability to be fine, and somewhat similar to the Obligato strings I used before and switched back to after, with earlier trials of many other synthetic brands. I reverted to synthetic primarily because I was taking the violin out of the house frequently to play with others and the very frequent tuning that was then required was just a nuisance, especially in fast-paced performance situations.
Regarding longevity, one set of Passione strings that I left on an instrument for about two years lasted that entire time but naturally the sound quality degraded, going flat. I switched out the set on the other instrument more often. I did have to replace at least one broken string, as I recall an A, but that was after an extended period of use (months). I used the Passione E so did not have problems with that failing.
I'm now thinking of stringing an instrument with either wound or unwound gut again to leave inside under temperature and humidity-controlled conditions for use in recording in a home studio, but am unlikely to again want to take a gut-stringed instrument out for playing with groups. At the moment I've got one instrument tuned to A=415 just to experiment with, but typically tune to 440.
More recently, I've tended to use some combination of Evahs and PIs, depending on the preference of the relevant violin maker. I did, however, do a few performances with a period-instrument group, including a run in a Rossini pit orchestra. For that, it was unwound gut E, A, and D. With a wound gut G. It took a little fussing to get the tailpiece in a good position for that, but the overall effect was very good. The E was surprisingly brilliant, and if it weren't so hard to tune without a fine tuner, I'd think about using one full-time. Perhaps using one of the balls from a steel E-string on the fine tuner would keep it from breaking.
Among other things during that project, I learned to stop playing sharp-- at least, on that instrument! Synthetics have such fantastic brilliance that they sound OK whether they are in tune or not. When gut strings are played sharp, they agree with nothing on their own violin or with neighbors, and all power evaporates. A useful discipline.
I also tried the Heifetz tricolore rig on an instrument, but either because of setup or summer weather never got it to sound fabulous. That might need some experimentation. Perhaps a different bridge would make a difference. Luthiers today tend to fit bridges assuming that Dominants or something like them will be used. Heifetz, on the other hand, used to insist on unwrapped A and D for his students. Shumsky used to do the same with his students, at least as far as making them use an all-gut A.
One theory I have discussed elsewhere on the board is the idea of the after-length between bridge and tailpiece. With synthetics of different weights and various wrappings, it's hard to get each string to be in tune with the main pitches. My guess is that it's probably easier to get more than one string to play a useful pitch with plucked below the bridge when gut is used. Weights of strings can vary, of course, but at least you don't have manufacturers' wrappings messing up the system when you're using gut.
Is it possible that a couple centuries of sympathetic vibrations created by a gut-string setup might have helped break in a lot of the good older instruments? I don't know, but am having good luck with modern ones having fussed with the wrappings on PIs and Evahs to get the correct (5th+ 2 octave up) pitch on the after-length.
I grew up on gut strings, mostly Eudoxa and Gold Label. Later I was pleasantly suprised by Kaplan, and through graduate school and beyond performed with period ensembles on unwound gut, both Chorda and Damian D.
In my experience: I don't ever remember breaking a gut string. I think if you break strings, whether gut or synthetic, you have a setup problem--some sharp edge somewhere--and not a string problem. Especially with lower pitch. Eudoxas seemed to last forever, although the winding on the A was a weak point.
Also, while gut is certainly less stable, given enough time, it will become reasonably stable, even outdoors. How much time? I'd say you have to give them two weeks.
A very popular setup for many period players is to have synthetic G/D with gut A/E. It's not only more stable, but the sound is similar enough.
While I've occasionally returned to gut, I always end up abandoning them. For modern music, especially high position work, gut strings are too weak, and produce too many of the wrong overtone, resulting in a muddier tone. It really depends on the violin, though--the better the fiddle, the better they can play. But they don't seem to work as well on modern fiddles, and can make wolf tones worse in spite of lower tension (lower tension produces more overtones, by the way).
I now use a Russian Style A, and it feels good on my instrument. I will probably continue to use Tricolore's gut G (with silver winding), although I may experiment a little more on the D with different brands, gauges, wound vs. pure gut, gut types, etc., until I decide on one that I like best. I have never tried a gut E, since I like my little fine tuner, and my Goldbrokat E does the job nicely.
Now, if what you want is high stress on the core--to make better overtones on the lower strings--then the only solution is to wind the string--whether gut cored or not.
Nobody mentioned varnished gut. Some find this to be a superior solution to the wear and fraying issue. Of course it affects the sound but not necessarily in a bad way.
A note on why the wound G needs to be tuned more than the plain D and A: this is because it is wound with metal. the D and A (and the e if you had it) all come and go with the temperature and humidity equally but the wound sting does not.
Another thing on wear. While it is true that some plastic cored stings may last "forever" their sound deteriorates quite rapidly. I would suggest that gut actually has a longer sustained stable sound than synthetic strings. By the time a gut string is actually physically deteriorating, your synth string would have been long since replaced, if you cared about the sound and overtone (falseness) quality.
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